Syria's Leader Defiant In First Speech Since Protests

Syria's President Bashar Assad addressed his nation Wednesday for the first time since anti-government protests broke out two weeks ago. Government forces have opened fire on demonstrators, killing dozens. Assad replaced his government Tuesday, but NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson tells Renee Montagne that his speech Wednesday fell short of delivering changes sought by protesters.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The president of Syria addressed his nation today for the first time since anti-government protests broke out there. President Bashar Assad was defiant after pro-government demonstrators filled the streets of the capital yesterday, some chanting: Only God, Syria and Bashar.

President BASHAR ASSAD (Syria): (Through translator) In yesterday's demonstrations, the unprecedented masses that took to the streets are actually giving me confidence and strong will.

MONTAGNE: Syria's President Assad, through a translator.

He and his father before him have ruled Syria for four decades. In response to protests that began two weeks ago, government forces have opened fire, killing dozens of protestors.

Assad did bow to the pressure of the protests when he replaced his entire cabinet yesterday, but his speech today was disappointing to those demonstrators.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us now. She has been following events in Syria. And Soraya, what did Assad say?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, the theme of the speech was definitely conspiracy. He kept talking about outside forces, and he named Israel specifically, as stirring up sectarian divisions and confusing Syrians into holding these protests across the country. Assad also said he wouldn't be rushed to make changes, because it could bring down the Syrian nation. We should also note that his comments were delivered before parliament, and they were interrupted by applause and praise by lawmakers who are strong supporters of the regime.

MONTAGNE: What about the couple of things that these protesters have really been demanding? And one of those is the state of emergency law that has been in effect for decades, and also they are asking for greater political freedom.

NELSON: Well, Assad only vaguely mentioned the state of emergency law that's been in effect for 48 years, and he said that a draft to revamp it was already under consideration. But he said nothing about immediately lifting it, which is what protesters say they are looking for.

And he also said nothing about changing the law that allows his Baath Party to rule. He did refer to a package of reforms announced last week, and that package will include some discussion of relaxing restrictions in other parties that are running in elections.

MONTAGNE: So the protesters didn't get a dramatic revamping of the laws there or greater political freedom immediately, so it doesn't sound like this is likely to calm the mood in the streets.

NELSON: Well, certainly it's not likely. I spoke with the head of the Syrian human rights organization, Ammar Gorabi(ph), who's here in Cairo for a conference. He says protesters want to see action, and they're really tired of hearing words, especially after all the killings and arrests of protesters in towns like Dara'a and Montakeya(ph). So they need to see some action. And there certainly wasn't much action being delivered in this speech today.

MONTAGNE: So what does this mean? What is next in Syria?

NELSON: Well, Assad says that parliament will consider these package of reforms that were announced last week, including what should happen to the state of emergency law. But while his speech in many ways sounded similar to what we heard from these defiant speeches from the former leader in Egypt and Tunisia, we need to remember that Syria is not Egypt and Syria is not Tunisia.

The structure in Syria is completely different than other countries. It's a pyramid structure, as Mr. Gorabi described it, with Assad firmly at the top. And so even now, after scores of people have been shot dead and there's been so much tension in Syrian streets, people for the most part are not calling for Mr. Assad's resignation. So he may be at the helm a while longer, even if he continues to act defiant, as he did today.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following events in Syria from Cairo.

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